Passover Will Be Different Because Of COVID-19. Here’s How Chicago’s Jews Will Celebrate.

Seder Plate
A traditional Passover Seder plate. The local Jewish community is finding ways to make this year’s holiday meaningful despite the global pandemic. Dan Goodman / Associated Press
Seder Plate
A traditional Passover Seder plate. The local Jewish community is finding ways to make this year’s holiday meaningful despite the global pandemic. Dan Goodman / Associated Press

Passover Will Be Different Because Of COVID-19. Here’s How Chicago’s Jews Will Celebrate.

Dan Libenson of Hyde Park knew Passover would be different — and really relevant — this year, so he made a plan with the family that usually comes over for Passover Seder dinners.

“We had been both in quarantine for over two weeks and then we became a unit of 10.,” he explained. “So we’re able to basically be together with the family that we’re generally together with. “

But he knows that not everyone was so forward thinking. So Libenson and many others have been creating resources to help others through a Passover in quarantine — one that will be very different from other years.

Libenson is president of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future and host of the popular Judaism Unbound podcast. But he has also recently created an online site called Jewish Live where he’s been talking to artists and thinkers about things like how this year’s digital Seder dinners might play out.

“No one really knows,” he said. “But I think the idea is that you are going to be there with your nuclear family and there will be a few laptops set up on your dining room table where whoever would have otherwise been there is there on their computer.”

He’s also been featuring things like livestreamed lessons with a baker on how to make your own fresh soft matzo at home if you can’t get to the store.

Still, Libenson says his big aim is to help people make meaningful connections this year at the Passover table. With the rich story behind the holiday, he thinks it shouldn’t be that difficult. The Seder meal commemorates the liberation of the ancient Jews from slavery.

“There are so many elements that really resonate with the time we are living in,” he noted. “Like the idea that there is a plague and that people are at home hoping that the plague will pass over their house.

“Most Passovers, it’s just a story that’s probably not even true … but now it’s really happening. So I’m thinking that people should be able to have that conversation at the Seder table … and maybe make it the most meaningful Passover they ever had.”

Noting the part of the Passover story where Egypt’s Pharaoh resisted responding to the plagues, Libenson says families could also engage in rich political conversations this year — if they wanted to go there.

Rabbi Rachel Weiss leads the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in north suburban Evanston. She’s also been hosting online sessions on preparing for the holiday with the theme Dayenu, or it is enough. She doesn’t want people to feel bad if they can’t pull off that big Seder dinner this year.

“If what you can handle is lighting the candles, blessing a cup of wine and eating a piece of matzo, Dayenu, it’s enough,” she said.

She also sees the deep connection between the Passover story and today’s crisis, and she knows it could bum people out.

“Next year, or 10 years from now, we may look back and say ‘Remember that Passover when we were all sheltering in place and this was happening and it feels like a plague?’” she said. “And that’s how we might remember it, but it doesn’t mean we get to ignore this moment and the way we are feeling.”

But Weiss also notes that this is a time for looking outward.

“I want to name the incredible privilege for those of us who are healthy and those of us who are able to shelter in place and don’t have to go out and interact with other people who are sick for our jobs, and that there is a real fear of that plague,” she said. “Most of us are going to be sitting around Seder tables sheltering in place. And so part of this is about protection and saying that I am doing this so that this will continue.”

Weiss ended a recent online Passover planning session with this poem by Alicia Jo Rabins that calls upon Jewish ancestors for strength in dark times.

…So hear me ancestors who lived through danger times

I’m ready for you now

All these years I’ve carried your words in my bones

Now I need your love, your thousand year view

Tell me it’s going to be OK.

Remind me that you made it through

And we will too.

Teach me to breathe.

Monica Eng is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @MonicaEng.